Medal recognises genetics work by Otago scientist

Neil Gemmell
Neil Gemmell
The Otago scientist behind the latest quest to find the Loch Ness monster says he feels honoured to receive international recognition after working in the genetics field for nearly three decades.

University of Otago department of anatomy lecturer Prof Neil Gemmell received the Genetics Society of AustralAsia (GSA) MJD White Medal in Canberra last week, after returning from his trip to take samples for environmental DNA sampling of the water in Loch Ness.

Prof Gemmell did not have time to rest on his laurels, and was staying in New Zealand for only a week before leaving again, to work on analysis of the water in France. Later this year he was heading to Boston three months for a Fulbright Fellowship.

Winning the medal was "a bit surreal" and had nothing to do with his work trying to find traces of the mythical creature, Prof Gemmell said.

Prof Gemmell, who is AgResearch chair in reproduction and genomics at Otago, was interested in the evolution of the mitochondrial genome, the evolution of microsatellite DNA, sex-determining mechanisms, and the processes that led to the formation of new species.

An achievement he was particularly proud of was his work on harmful mitochondrial DNA, dubbed "mother's curse", which he had been looking at for close to 20 years.

It was the notion some genetic mutations were carried by females without harming carriers, but negatively affecting males.

"Identifying that is what I think I'm most proud of."

It is the first time the award has been given to a New Zealand-based academic.

These days a large part of his research was carried out on fish, he said.

He was particularly interested in the way fish changed sex naturally, and its possible application to aquaculture.

The process the New Zealand spotty went through to change sex was something that particularly interested him, since it happened much more slowly than other species that changed gender.


Gender changing fish in fresh waters of Waikato had such change thrust upon them. Hormonal wastewater from oestrogens ex contraception made male fish effete. Gender shifting is diy reproduction, called parthenogenesis.